- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The massive snowstorm on “Super Saturday” clobbered retailers across the Washington region and throughout much of the Eastern Seaboard, but shoppers returned to the stores in large numbers Sunday and Monday, sparking hopes that sales will strengthen before Christmas.

There is enough time for retailers to recover from the storm, analysts say, but overall holiday sales will still likely be flat or lower compared with last year, which was the most disappointing Christmas retail season in 40 years.

While shopping malls suffered, online sales — which have been sizzling this holiday season — surged over the weekend.

The last Saturday before Christmas, dubbed “Super Saturday,” is one of the biggest shopping days of the year. Nationwide sales that day typically reach $15 billion, and the Northeast accounts for 25 percent or more of that total. But not this year, not when malls remain closed all day or shut down early.

Prime Outlets in Queenstown, Md., whose 60 stores include outlets for Calvin Klein, Coach, Gucci and factory stores for J. Crew, Polo Ralph Lauren and L.L. Bean, was closed all day Saturday. The center reopened two hours late Sunday, but “traffic was brisk,” said Jackie May, marketing manager.

“We opened on time Monday, and the center is very busy,” said Ms. May, adding that she is “cautiously optimistic for a successful holiday season.”

Taubman Centers Inc., which owns or manages 24 shopping centers, said its Fair Oaks Mall in Fairfax, Va., closed at 4 p.m. Saturday, while its Richmond-based Regency Square and Stony Point Fashion Park malls were shuttered two hours early.

All three malls opened on time Sunday. “Traffic started out light as people were digging themselves out, but became extremely busy in the afternoon,” said Karen Mac Donald, a Taubman spokeswoman.

By 1:30 p.m. Monday, parking lots were 80 percent to 100 percent full, Ms. Mac Donald said. Whether Taubman’s malls can make up for Saturday was “difficult to say, but we have a big week ahead,” she said.

Macy’s Inc. stores closed early Saturday throughout the Baltimore-Washington area, some as early as 1 p.m., said Elina Kazan, a Macy’s spokeswoman. “What shoppers need is extra time,” she said. So Macy’s Pentagon City store in Arlington, Va., will remain open until 2 a.m. Tuesday and Wednesday. Its Tysons Corner store in Fairfax, Va., will remain open through 6 p.m. Christmas Eve.

Also in response to the weekend storm, Toys R Us announced Monday that hundreds of its East Coast stores would remain open from 6 to 1 a.m. through Wednesday and 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Christmas Eve.

Procrastination is one factor working in favor of a short-term retail rebound. More than 40 million people had not even begun their shopping by the end of the second week of December, according to a survey conducted for the National Retail Federation.

This past weekend, procrastination combined with Mother Nature to give a big boost to e-commerce.

“Retail sales will be somewhat lower, but the big story will be the migration to online outlets,” said Peter Morici, a business professor at the University of Maryland at College Park.

For Friday and Saturday, online sales orders totaled $337.4 billion, 12 percent higher than online sales for the Friday and Saturday before Christmas last year, according to Coremetrics, a Web analytics company.

Online retail sales have been expanding by 4 percent this year, compared with flat or declining sales at brick-and-mortar stores. E-commerce’s share of total U.S. retail sales, excluding cars, travel and prescription drugs, will total about 7 percent this year, up from 6 percent in 2008, analysts estimate. During the holiday season, online sales could reach 10 percent of the total.

“Shoppers forced to select express shipping will be a bonanza for online retailers, who often charge premiums for express services that don’t impose as much in additional cost as [online retailers] charge,” Mr. Morici said.

UPS Inc. and FedEx Corp. will be major beneficiaries of the online boom. Monday was projected to be the busiest day of the year for UPS, which expected to deliver 22 million packages, said Ronna Branch, a UPS spokesman. The company normally ships 15 million packages a day.

Overall, holiday retail sales, whose 4 percent decline last year represented the worst Christmas season in 40 years, could turn in another very disappointing performance in 2009.

“This year, we are doing worse. The numbers will be 1 [percent] to 2 percent negative,” said Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates Inc., a national retail-consulting and investment-banking firm in New York City.

For the past two months, 80 percent of the retail chains have reported declining sales for stores opened a year or more, Mr. Davidowitz noted. “Macy’s, Penney’s, Dillard’s - down! Target, Nieman Marcus, Home Depot - down! Lowe’s, Saks, Sears - down!” he methodically enumerated. “The facts are undeniable.”

Compared with last Christmas, more Americans are no longer employed and available credit has shrunk by trillions of dollars. Meanwhile, plunging home prices have erased trillions of dollars from household net worth, Mr. Davidowitz said.

By comparison, the snowstorm was small stuff. “Shoppers have enough time,” he said. “But in the end, holiday retail sales will still be down 1 [percent] to 2 percent” from last year’s lows.

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